CARACAS -- The Organization of American States must evolve or die. That was the central message from a bloc of Latin American nations challenging the body’s role in the region.
As the annual OAS General Assembly concluded Tuesday in Cochabamba, Bolivia, the organization’s relevance took center stage in sometimes contentious debates.
The General Assembly was expected to consider measures that could strip the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the Inter-American Human Rights Court of some of their independence. The reforms would also give states the power to delay, for up to a year, the commission’s influential country reports, greatly reducing their impact. But late Tuesday, members appeared poised to kick the recommendations back to the permanent council, which will have to provide concrete proposals by early next year.
Opposition to the commission came from Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, among others. The countries — all part of the ALBA bloc of mostly left-leaning nations — accuse the OAS of being under the sway of the United States and using the commission as a foreign policy bludgeon.
Ecuador President Rafael Correa — the only head of state to attend the meeting besides host Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president — kicked off the event Monday with a renewed call for an overhaul.
The commission has been in Correa’s crosshairs since it slammed his use of an obscure libel law to lodge multimillion lawsuits against several media outlets, including El Universo newspaper.
Correa said national laws must take precedence over commission decrees in the same way that the United States considers the death penalty and lobbying legal, even though they would be verboten in many countries.
“We cannot accept the double morals and the inconsistencies,” he said. “We need to focus on the priorities of our America — this neocolonialism is over.”
On Tuesday, in an interview with Venezuela’s Telesur, Correa went further.
“There’s no more time to lose,” he said. “If it’s necessary to abandon the OAS and create our own system, then we have to do it.”
By most accounts, the OAS isn’t disappearing anytime soon. By the end of Tuesday’s session, most of the delegates were talking about evolution rather than dissolution, and Guatemala was selected as the site for next year’s meeting.
Morales said the body still has a place in the region, but that it should be joined by the newly created Union of South American Nations, UNASUR, and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, which includes every nation in the hemisphere except the United States and Canada.
“We don’t want to eliminate the OAS,” he said at a news conference, “but we need to give these new initiatives more importance.”
The calls for reform have sparked alarm among media and civil liberty organizations. In an article published before the meeting, Human Rights Watch Director José Miguel Vivanco said the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, and its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, have helped decriminalize libel, defamation and contempt; led to reforms in the military; and helped eliminate discriminatory practices in the region.